Donald Ray Pollock, author of the linked short story collection, Knockemstiff, sat down to talk with Sycamore Review’s Christopher Feliciano Arnold during a visit to Purdue University in September. You can click on the following links to listen to audio clips from the conversation. A transcript of the interview follows.
Clip 1: On writing and working at a paper mill
Clip 2: On first lines
Clip 3: On the reputation of his hometown of Knockemstiff
Clip 4: On learning to sit
Clip 5: On hearing voices
DONALD RAY POLLOCK was born in 1954 and grew up in southern Ohio in a holler named Knockemstiff. He dropped out of high school at seventeen to work in a meatpacking plant, and then spent thirty-two years employed in a paper mill in Chillicothe, Ohio before leaving to enroll in the MFA program at Ohio State University. There he honed his debut short story collection, Knockemstiff, released last year to widespread acclaim. The Los Angeles times wrote that “Knockemstiff is a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book.” The New York Times wrote that “Pollock’s voice is fresh and full-throated, and the best of [his stories] leave an indelible smear.” A front page profile in the Wall Street Journal speculated that Pollock might just be “the next important voice in American fiction.” Pollock still lives in Chillicothe with his wife, Patsy, a high school English teacher. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Third Coast, The Journal, Sou’wester, Chiron Review, River Styx, Boulevard, Folio, and The Berkeley Fiction Review. More recently, Knockemstiff was awarded the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from the University of Southern Illinois Carbondale, and the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship, which honors an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise. He is currently at work on a novel set in 1965, about a serial killer named Arvin Eugene Russell. Pollock visited Purdue University in September of 2009 for a reading sponsored by Sycamore Review. Featured here are audio clips from the conversation, followed by a transcript of the interview. -Christopher Feliciano Arnold
SR: People speak so often of creative writing programs as giving writers time to write. In your case you began writing stories and working on your craft while you were working full time. Tell us a little bit about how these stories came to mind, what voices you started hearing? How did you begin putting them to paper in those early years?
DRP: Well, I worked at the paper mill and my job was I was the ash hauler. So I worked in the power department. We brought coal, and the ash, what’s left over, goes into these silos, and I was the guy who took care of all that stuff. It was by far the dirtiest job in the paper mill, but it was a good job because I was my own boss. I could work my own hours. Mostly what it consisted of, besides getting really, really dirty, was driving an enormous dump truck, just back and forth you know, and I’d dump this ash out. So I’m by myself all the time and once I started thinking about trying to learn how to write, I had the perfect job for that. I could talk to myself, you know, and I could think about characters, all that sort of thing. I had lots of time to do that. So it was the perfect job for that.
In my case, the MFA program at OSU was a life saver because when I got accepted to the program I had been at the paper mill for almost thirty two years and the only way that I was going to be able to get out of the paper mill was for something like this program to happen. Which it did and it gave me this opportunity. It gave me three years of funding. And so it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I was used to working six days a week, nine to ten hours a day. As I said, it was a good job. I made great money. I had great benefits, but I was tired of doing that. I had been working nine or ten hours a day and then coming home and writing for a couple of hours. Now I would have whole blocks of time, two or three or four days in a row where I could just write as much as I could stand.
SR: Michelle Herman, one of your professors at Ohio State and editor of The Journal, where you submitted some of your first stories, says you initially had some reservations about coming to a program. Ultimately what you think you gained from going to the program despite those reservations?
DRP: Maybe about two years before I applied I had published a story with The Journal, maybe two, and she had me come up there and do a reading with some other writers. It was like an anniversary party for The Journal. At that time she said, “You know you should really think about coming up here.” But I’d already been writing for about three years, it was like there was no way, you know. I wasn’t confident enough to think that that would pay off. I probably worked for another year and a half maybe and by that time I guess she planted the seed of course. Maybe I could get out of the mill. And then the longer I kept at it the more I thought that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and so it came down to making that decision — staying at the mill or going to grad school.
SR: Some of your earliest influences were these noir films of the 40’s and 50’s, and a program called Chiller Theater that was out in the 1970’s. How did those influence your aesthetic and how do you think about those noir elements in relation to your stories? Is that something you’re conscious of or are these more silent influences?
DRP: Well… that’s a hard question. I guess for one thing, with Chiller Theater, it was in the 60’s when I was a little kid. We lived out in the sticks. We could get two channels most of the time, but we could get channel 10 all the time, and that was Columbus, Ohio, and there was this program that went on Friday nights at 11:30, called Chiller Theater, and this guy showed two old horror movies. You know, it might be ‘The Mummy’s Ghost’ and ‘The Little Dark House,’ something like that. So, I mean we’re talking the 60’s. We’re not talking internet, cell phones, and all this stuff, so that was big entertainment for a kid. And I watched that show religiously. On that same channel they had Armchair Theater on at 11:30. Now my parents were really pretty liberal in that sense in that you could pretty much stay up as long as you wanted as long as you made it to school the next day. So I watched a lot of noir on Armchair Theater. You know the thing about noir is, what fascinates me about it more than anything, because really a lot of times the story lines, they’re pretty simple and everything. But some of those directors, they had such great use of shadows. That’s what fascinates me about that type of film. The subject matter of course, but just the shadows, and really just that whole period. I think I was born a little bit too late. I probably should have been doing my thing back in the 40’s and the 50’s. [Laughs]
SR: One of the most impressive aspects of your work is how you draw your characters so economically. I’m thinking here of the narrator, Hank, in the title story “Knockemstiff.” He works in a convenience store all day and he tells us about his job working at the deli. He says, “I’ve been slicing meat so many years now I don’t even bother with the scales anymore. I can hit it within a penny or two every time.” That tells me everything I need to know about Hank. It captures both his boredom with his job but his pride in his job at the same time. When you think about these characters, where do they begin? Is it a line of dialogue? An image? A memory?
DRP: I really like having a nice, a really good first line, and part of that… it’s not an aesthetic thing or whatever, it’s that if I had a really nice, say first paragraph, then when I sent the story out there was a greater chance that maybe someone would look at it. If that first paragraph was good enough, maybe they would stick it out. I would really work hard on the first lines, and a lot of my stories developed real slow, and I would start with a first line. I have this really terrible habit of not writing out a first draft. It would go just line, by line, by line, by line. That’s how I wrote almost all those stories. And I think that that’s a harmful thing, I really do, and my professor would be on me about it, but that was the only way I could do it at the time. I think it was because when I just started, I was on my own. I didn’t know how to start, so that’s the way I began and I just kept doing it and it became a habit. So, yeah… it was mostly a first line sort of thing. And once I allowed it to be a character I would either have an image of what the character looked like or I might be standing in the grocery store line and hear somebody say something, and just that one little sentence or, you know, whatever remark that they maybe said to somebody on their cell phone, and I could take that and start working with it.
SR: I’m really interested in your use of violence in these stories, because so many of the stories really turn or hinge on these moments of violence. So many of the people in your Knockemstiff are really using violence almost as a way in times to cure boredom or as a way sometimes to teach their children and in some cases it’s this really intense pleasure. Thinking about the story, “I Start Over,” there’s a moment when Big Bernie describes, “happiness ripping through him like a sword,” as he’s just finished with this brawl. How does violence play in the lives of your characters? What is it about their lives in Knockemstiff that makes violence such a present part of their stories?
DRP: Well, you know when I was growing up in Knockemstiff, and now today it’s pretty much a ghost town. There’s really not much there at all. There’s people that live there, and there’s some nice houses there, all that sort of thing, but when I was growing up there it was this really small tight knit community and there was about 500 people living there, and there was three little general stores, a bar, a church… as I said earlier, I was probably related to half the people that lived in that place. I really was. And this place had this reputation for being violent. Some of it was true, some of it was just exaggerated, some of it was myth, whatever, but then when I figured out that the book was going to be centered in Knockemstiff– and the book is as much about Knockemstiff as it is about the individual characters–I decided what I was going to do was take what I remembered of the reputation. I went to school a few miles away, and it’s funny really, but kids would make fun of you for living in Knockemstiff. The sheriff wouldn’t come out there half the time. I decided, I’m going to crank this up as far as I can without it getting really cartoonish, and just go with that.
SR: So thinking about that idea of cranking up the stories, there are many scenes, often near the climax of your stories that are just absolutely chilling. It’s clear that you have peered into some dark corner that a lot of writers would probably shy away from. The ending of “Hare’s Tail” comes to mind in this case. Is there a point that you reach where you tell yourself, yeah, I’m going to go there, or do you reach a point as you’re writing where you think, OK, should I go there?, and then deliberately make that leap, or is it just an inevitable flow for you?
DRP: Well, for one thing, there was a lot of stuff that I took out of the book, that went a lot further than what it does in the book. [Laughter] And that was when it was to the point where, I mean maybe we just better pull back a little bit here. But then again, it just felt natural that these were the things that these people would do.
I’ve had a lot of bad reactions. I mean, a lot of people will read… they’ll get to the second story, and they’ll put the book down. They won’t read anymore. But, as I said earlier, I can go out here and pick up the local newspaper, and bring it in here, and I can show you things that are just as bad or worse, probably worse, than anything that’s in my book. So what’s the big deal? I mean, I am maybe exploring something that a lot of people don’t want to think about, but people do live like this. And I don’t want to make excuses, but that is the way I think about it, is that it just seemed natural at the time when I was writing it. Say, the boy in “Pills” would take the dead chicken out of the trunk of the car and start cooking it, that sort of thing. I mean, I just did. I don’t know why. I just did. A lot of my stuff, when I’m writing it, I’m either hearing a voice or I’m seeing it.
SR: This book has been so widely and almost unanimously acclaimed, and I know it makes you uncomfortable to talk about it, but some of the most glowing reviews of the book have appeared in these city newspapers, where they’re flabbergasted at small town America. I come from a very small town in Oregon and when I read these reviews I chuckle to myself because it seems that, as you mentioned, a lot of these same things are happening in the suburbs and in the cities, and it just seems as though in the suburbs and the cities people have more ways to hide their secrets from each other as opposed to in small towns. Do you notice any difference in the reactions from more rural audiences versus the reaction you get from more urban audiences?
DRP: Sure. Yeah, even the reactions just from people in Chillicothe, in Knockemstiff. My mom read this book and she thought it was so funny. You know, it was not horrible or it was no biggie, but it was just funny to her. And then I have people from big cities who review the book and I know that there’s stuff going on where they live that is just as bad. So, you know, I’ll be in Chillicothe and someone will be saying to me, I know somebody just like that. So yeah, there is a difference.
SR: I want to just get to one more question and then I will turn it over to our audience. Thinking about the idea of Knockemstiff as a linked collection, on top of it being linked geographically, we also have a really satisfying arc between the opening story, “Real Life”, and the final story, “Fights” when we get a sense of Bobby Lowe returning to his home. Could you speak to that process of linking these stories together? At what point did you say to yourself, “Yeah, maybe these are all connecting”? Was that something that occurred to you over time or was there one story that you wrote and it all just sort of clicked together? Because I know that a lot of the fiction writers here are working with short stories and ask themselves, “How can these fit together? How can this make a book?” Can you speak to how you did that?
DRP: Well, pretty much, by the time I got to OSU, I had published like I said, maybe four or five stories, and had written maybe eight that were… I mean I took like three with me to start work-shopping when I went to grad school. So I had maybe eight, and then when I got there, one of the first things I heard was, “You’re going to have a lot better chance at finding a job once you get out of here if you have a book.” At that point, I know this sounds really crazy, but at that point I had not even considered ever writing a book, I was just really… I had told my wife, “If I can write one really good short story I’ll be satisfied. That’s all I’ve got to do.” And I was still thinking that way until I heard this professor say, “Well, if you’ve got a book, you’ve got a better chance at getting a job.” Well, you know, here I’d quit my job. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got out, even though I was just starting. I had three years but I was still worried about it. So, I really worked… I worked this so hard for like the next… It was about… I think it was about 15 months. I said 16 months earlier but it was actually about 15 months I wrote the other… I wrote 10 more stories and I workshopped… Gee, I want to say, one, two, three… I work-shopped about probably 12 stories in that time. Anytime they would let me workshop one I was doing it.
So, I read this linked collection, The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter. It’s about this little place in Pennsylvania, that I thought, “You know, I could do that with Knockemstiff. I could do that.” So with the next ten stories that I wrote, the aim was to try to link everything up, as I did it. Well, I say the aim was, but I think really it was just to get the stories down, and then I thought after I get the stories down I can figure out ways of making them fit. And that’s pretty much how I did that.
SR: Well I want to make sure we have some time to field some questions from the audience.
Audience: I’m just curious to know what’s next. What are you working on right now? Can you tell us in 25 words or less? I don’t want you to give away stuff that you don’t want to give away.
DRP: Well, on my website it says I’m working on a novel about a serial killer, but it has changed so many times. The whole book has changed a lot. So I’m working on that one, and I’m also working on another novel. I started another novel because I hit this dead spot with the one I was working on, and I got this idea for one that’s really… it’s pretty simple. It’s six or seven months in the life of this guy in the early 80’s, and he’s kind of weird and got a drinking problem, that sort of thing. But I started writing it when I hit this dead spot with the other one, and it actually feels better than the one that I’ve been struggling with for so long, so I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Audience: When you got to graduate school, what was the thing that you learned that helped you the most with your writing and what was the thing maybe you learned that inhibited your writing.
DRP: You know, before I got to grad school I had been writing for five years, and I had read interviews with other writers, all that sort of thing. So I had learned that, OK the hardest thing about this deal is sitting at the desk, every day, that’s the hardest thing. So if I can learn how to do that, you know, I’ve got that part of it whipped. Really to me, it’s sitting at the desk, trying to put words down, and then reading. And so, I pretty much had learned how to sit. I could sit, and I still can, I can sit for a good five hours easy and not write anything. I just look at the screen.
DRP: I can do that.
Audience: And you don’t feel guilty, like you’re wasting time.
DRP: No, no, no, not as long as I’m sitting there.
DRP: I feel guilty if I get up and leave. Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s like in so many people… I’ve heard this time and time and time again is, “Well, what if you’re not sitting there when the inspiration comes or the idea or whatever?” It’s lost. So that was to me the most important thing. And that was what was preached to us when we went to grad school but fortunately I had pretty much already learned that.
Audience: It was all those hours going back and forth in that truck.
DRP: Yeah, that was another thing. Talking to myself and I had a notebook with me and I’d write stuff down. You know, the wonderful thing about grad school was, well there were several wonderful things, but for one I had more time to write. Another thing is, I had never been around any writers, never. I mean I had an English degree from Ohio University, but I didn’t take any writing classes or anything like that. I just took the literature classes, and I was working full-time and I was going to school part-time. I wasn’t hanging around the school or anything like that. So, like I said, I hadn’t been around any writers. That was the other big thing that it gave me. I was around people who were interested in the same thing that I was. You know, the guys that I worked with were really nice guys, but they weren’t interested in trying to learn how to write, or William Faulkner, or anything like that. I mean, so, those were probably the two biggest things, just being around that community of people and the time.
Audience: When you’re working on a character, you said you had a lot of time where you were talking to yourself… when you’re thinking about a character do you embody the character almost like you would as a dramatic piece, embody that voice, or do you always kind of keep yourself removed like a narrator? How do you… When you come up with a character, does it take over or is it always separate?
DRP: That has happened to me, and it’s a great thing when it does, because it makes it all so much easier. I mean I think it does, but it doesn’t happen all the time. I mean, when I wrote the story “Dynamite Hole” which is a really… a lot of people get really upset about that story, but I can remember it. I was sitting there just staring at the screen and I wrote that first sentence, which is still the first sentence. And it was like I started hearing his voice in my head. And I wrote that story in like two days. It was a gift. Believe me, I never write a story in two days. It takes me weeks and weeks and weeks to write a story, but that story just… It was an amazing experience, and so even though most people hate that story, I love that story, because I still remember that experience of having that flutter. And you know, it’s happened a couple other times once I had done maybe seven or eight revisions, something like that, were it just… then it just kind of clicks and everything works. You know this stuff is really hard to explain.
Audience: Your work has been compared a lot to Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio, I think partially because of the small town Ohio angle, but also the idea of the grotesque and how that works in your collection and his collection. Is that something you read prior to writing these stories were you conscious of writing in a certain tradition?
DRP: Well, I had read Winesburg. I have to say that Winesburg– I know people compare my book to that book that sort of thing, but I think really it’s just that both towns are in Ohio. I wasn’t thinking about Winesburg at all when I was writing my book. If anything, probably the biggest influence on me when I was first starting out was Jesus’ Son, by Dennis Johnson, that was a really big influence on me. You know, Winesburg, when it came out, it was… wow, a lot of people were scandalized by that book. I mean if you read it today it’s like, what the hell were they thinking? But they were, you know and for its time it was a great book. But with me I could identify more with the Dennis Johnson character in Jesus’ Son.
Audience: I was wondering, when you first start hearing the voice of your characters when you start writing them, do you ever change position between first person and third person, because I noticed a lot of your stories are from male perspective, so how does that change?
DRP: OK, there are 18 stories in the book and probably, I’m going to say at least a dozen of them I tried both ways. I tried it first person. I tried it third person. Usually I tried it second person. You know I’ve never been able to write a really good second person story. I’d love to be able to do that, but I haven’t been able to do it yet. I might not write the whole story that way but I would try a couple pages, see how it sounded. It just became what felt most comfortable and most real.
Audience: When you’re writing about a place that you know and that personally knows you, do find that there are a lot of challenges? Like you were saying about scandalizing… do you worry that someone is going to call you up one day, say that this story hit a little too close to home?
DRP: You know I didn’t because first of all I didn’t for a long time because I didn’t think I would ever publish a book. So it was like I can write whatever I want.
But then when Double Day bought the book, and then when the lawyer called me from Double Day and we started talking. Then I started worrying about it a little bit. I started thinking, was there anything in there. And I had to change it, mostly I had to change names, because I used a lot of names that were people that I had known that were dead now, and they still had family members around. So I changed a few names. One thing that was really strange is, in a couple of the stories there is a VISTA man, and a lot of younger people don’t know but VISTA, well I think it’s still around, but back in the 60’s they would send people in to help poor people out, give them a little culture, that sort of thing. So I had this guy in there, and they were really worried about this guy. And their reasoning was they were saying because there actually was a VISTA man, came to Knockemstiff and helped us build a ball diamond. Now he wasn’t a pedophile. He was a really nice guy. But they were really worried about this because they said, you know, “What if this guy is on the Supreme Court now, and he’s been going around telling people that he was a VISTA volunteer in Knockemstiff, Ohio, back in the 60’s.” Now, I thought they were stretching things a little bit, but what I had to do was put two VISTA men in the story. So that way they can say, it’s the other guy. It was weird.
SR: Well I have one final question for you, if we don’t have any others from the audience. So, I think really often, and you mentioned the Winesburg, Ohio comparison earlier, but I think a lot of people mention your work in the same breath as Denis Johnson, William Gay, and Breece Pancake, and even Raymond Carver as the sort of writers that are representing the working class in a literary arts world that often times doesn’t have a lot of that voice in its authentic form. Is that something that you’re conscious of? For example some of your writing for the New York Times and Huffington Post, some of these publications are eager to sort of say, well here’s a voice from working class Ohio. Do you feel any pressure to carry the sort of Breece Pancake, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson torch, or is that something that you just try to ignore and do your thing?
DRP: Well with the New York Times and The Huffington Post, that kind of stuff, of course I was really honored that they wanted me to write anything for them, and I think probably I was mostly nervous about doing a good job, and trying to put across in an honest way what these people were thinking about, say, the election or, you know, the campaign. I mean you’ve got to figure with me it was like, so they asked me to write about politics… Obama, Hilary, this sort of thing. Well, I’m a guy who sits at home almost all the time by myself. You know, I talk to my wife and my dog until she died here a couple of months ago. And so I wasn’t out and about much, let’s put it that way. And so I would see like, OK they’re having a farmer’s market on Saturday. I’ll go down there and talk to people. And so I got really nervous about… man, I don’t want to mess this up, you know, because I want this to be true, and I don’t know if I’m capable of doing that anymore because I’m not at the mill and I’m not talking to all my old working buddies, that sort of thing. That’s probably… I wasn’t thinking about any of that other Carver stuff, or any of that.
SR: Well, thank you very much for being here.
DRP: It was nice that you could have me.